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OPULAR MUSIC serves as the timepiece of our decade, measuring attitudinal changes just as a watch compartmentalizes the day. A gaudy but serviceable Timex wristband adequately registers the influence of dull disco and pathological punk. But shoved into a corner as a well-burnished antique, a grandfather clock represents the dignified sobriety of the protest song. With the re-emergence of topical songwriter Tom Paxton, protest music avoids becoming totally anachronistic. On his latest album, New Songs From the Briarpatch, Paxton proves that the '70s cannot excape untouched by barbed balladry.
Paxton was the granddaddy of the Greenwich Village music scene in the early '60s, a time when struggling folk artists sang heatedly about civil rights and Southeast Asia. When the febrile years drew to a close, Paxton took his music abroad; he spent the past three or four years playing in English towns. Now back in America, Paxton is a bit balder and even bolder than in the past.
New Songs From the Briarpatch, recorded live at Vanguard studios, effectively captures the dynamism of Paxton as a performer. He differs from his Village contemporaries in his master of direct communication with his audience; he borrows neither Bob Dylan's detachment nor Phil Ochs' alcoholic trance. Rather, he is akin to Joni Mitchell, who cajoles her audience to sing along because "the more out-of-tune voices on a song, the better." Paxton, too, encourages participation, seeking to bridge the gap between artist and idolator. And by explaining the motivation behind the composition of each song, Paxton secures an Intellectual bond with his listeners.
Paxton's style guarantees the sincerity of his commitment. With a carefully distilled mixture of honesty and bitterness, Paxton reaches his apex in "White Bones of Allende." As he blames United States intervention for the collapse of Allende's government, he aims his harpoon at Kissinger's global politics of amorality:
For it's Kissinger in China, Oh, it's Kissinger in Cairo, Kissinger at Nato In the grand old power game. But the white bones of Allende Tell another darker story, Oh you never got to Chile, But you killed it just the same.
Even at his most vindictive, Paxton bulldozes sympathy for his cause. Backed only by a simple acoustic strum, Paxton uses his music to highlight his lyrics. An occasional beat on a bongo drum, played by Angel Allende (any relation?), lends an exotic flavor to the song.
In an equally bitter ballad, "Bring Back the Chair," Paxton evinces his skill with irony. He mockingly suggests that America should revive executions to escape from complete boredom, chanting, "Bring back the chair, strap someone there, strap down a pair." Swept away by the morbid message, Paxton lapses into moments of poor enunciation and phrasing, but the song is funny enough to short out delivery problems. Again, the music provides a steady circuit for the electricity of Paxton's work.
Paxton shows his latent romanticism in a protest song of a different genre. His voice quivers with emotion on "Born on the Fourth of July," when he recounts the story of a patriotic marine who realizes the evil of Vietnam after he returns from the war paralyzed. Writing with such intensity, Paxton manages to revive a half-forgotten issue. While Paxton's tenor is not overwhelming, he injects enormous feeling in this rendition.
AS HE STRAYS from protest to love, Paxton shows more of his soft side. At his most tender in "You're So Beautiful," Paxton calls his wife, "the loveliest women a man ever knew." Paxton runs the risk of using enough saccharine to kill a tubful of Canadian rats, but this sentimental ode at least provides a suitable contrast to Paxton's political commentary. "There Goes the Mountain," Paxton's plea for preservation of nature, also combines sweet and bitter in just the right proportions. Steve Goodman harmonizes as Paxton personifies the mountain, the "avalanche-maker, heaven's caretaker." Paxton stimulates nostalgia for Earth Day with his revival of concern for the environment.
The real achievement of this album lies in Paxton's ability to resurrect forgotten issues and to treat new topics. He seeks to activate an anesthetized generation, to cure the amnesia that threatens to destroy protest. If Paxton succeeds, his songs will long outlive a Timex watch.
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